A fond farewell to Rubens


The 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix, which closed the season, didn’t exactly go the way Rubens Barrichello might have wished.

Having qualified his Williams-Cosworth 12th – a position which considerably flattered the car – he then made a terrible start, so that even a fine drive thereafter got him only as high as 14th at the flag.

It wasn’t the race Barrichello had been hoping for, but then his luck at home had always been famously awful. More than once, in the Ferrari days, he had the race bought and paid for, only for something to go wrong. Born within shouting distance of the circuit, Rubens not surprisingly wanted to win at Interlagos more than anywhere else, but the cards never fell his way.

Last November, though, the race had an added ingredient for him, because the chances were high that it would be the last time he would race a Grand Prix car – not merely in front of his own people, but anywhere. In difficult circumstances he had done an excellent job for Williams – particularly in 2010, his first season with the team – but while cash-rich Pastor Maldonado was sure to keep his drive for ’12, there was no word as to who would partner him. Barrichello, although closing on his 40th birthday, had his hopes of staying on to enjoy a 20th season in Formula 1, but other, younger, men were in the frame, some of them ‘with a budget’, and many doubted that Rubens would get the nod.

He refused to contemplate such a thing, however, brushing away suggestions that he should turn the Interlagos weekend into an emotional farewell to his fans. Barrichello well knew that the moment would come to call time on his F1 career, but in his mind he wasn’t there yet. Sadly, as with Jean Alesi, others made the decision for him.

I say ‘sadly’ because, of all the Grand Prix drivers I have known, only Clay Regazzoni matched Barrichello in his pure love of what he was doing. Rubens was 19 when he made his F1 debut with Jordan back in 1993, and in the intervening years never gave so much as a momentary thought to retirement – indeed if anything his enthusiasm for life as a Grand Prix driver only increased as he got older.

Like Regazzoni, Barrichello was occasionally a winner, and on merit, but neither man was driven in the manner of a Senna, and each had values not always found in their contemporaries. It is often said of a driver who fails to make it to the very highest echelon that he was ‘too nice a guy’, and perhaps Rubens comes into this bracket. He lacked the killer instinct probably necessary to make it to the very top – not so much on the track as in his behaviour off it. Not long ago he told me that, whereas most top drivers would insist, if only one new front wing or whatever were available, on having it, such a thing made him feel only guilty: he preferred to compete on equal terms. Trust me, you don’t meet many like this…

Because of that, and because his Latin heart was always so obviously on his sleeve, some of Barrichello’s rivals considered him a bit ‘soft’, but I always thought that unjust. Certainly Rubens was always more emotional, more willing to say what he thought, than most, but he was no push-over on the race track – even if, like Alain Prost, he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and would never endanger a rival.

Like Prost, too, Barrichello was superb at setting up a race car, and when he had it to his liking, and the mood was on him, sometimes he could be unbeatable. I think now of the 2003 British Grand Prix at Silverstone – the notorious race in which a lunatic ran amuck on the Hangar Straight – when his drive was a masterpiece of controlled aggression. Twice he took on, and passed, Kimi Raikkonen, first getting by the McLaren on the outside into Abbey, then later daring to threaten Kimi into Bridge, which made him run wide at the exit, and settled the affair once and for all.

For six seasons as Schumacher’s Ferrari team mate Barrichello was obliged to race under severe constraints, often – as in Austria two years running – being obliged to obey Jean Todt’s orders, and give way to Michael after consummately out-driving him. No, of course he didn’t enjoy it, but he would argue that at that time the second Ferrari was better than the first anything else, and it was difficult to take issue.

Finally, after an incident at Indianapolis in 2005, Rubens concluded that enough was enough, and asked to be released from his contract a year early, so as to join Honda. After three seasons with uncompetitive cars, partnering Jenson Button, there followed an Indian Summer with the team – now reconstituted as Brawn: in 2009 Barrichello won twice, and was a factor everywhere. We’re only talking about a couple of years ago…

Now, though, with Bruno Senna signed at Williams, it seems to be all over for Rubens in F1, and in Brazil he will be grieving, for he has known nothing else. It’s unlikely now that he will ever be offered a worthwhile drive again, and – maybe I’m wrong – it’s difficult to envisage his being tempted into a lesser form of motor racing, so entirely has his career been based around F1. So I offer a salute to a very fine Grand Prix driver, on occasion a great one, and a delightful man, with values from another time.

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